Way back in 2011-12, the penalty kill by the New Jersey Devils was simply fantastic. They achieved an amazingly high success rate of 89.6%. Fans would call it the power kill as the Devils scored 15 shorthanded goals. The Devils were rather stingy in terms of shots allowed. According to Behind the Net, the New Jersey Devils had the fifth lowest shots allowed rate per 60 minutes in 4-on-5 situations. Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg each posted up save percentages on the PK of over 91%, but that low rate means the team wasn't just relying on the goalie for penalty killing success. It was very much a strength in the 2011-12 regular season. Not at all in the postseason, but it was a sight for 82 games.
After the Incredibly Stupid Lockout of 2012 ended, the Devils' PK got off on the wrong foot in 2013. Just poor decisions that resulted in opposing players wide open for easy shots. It required a mid-season breakdown of what appeared to be just poor decisions killing the team. The team would improve as time went on, winless streaks aside. By the end of the shortened season, the Devils.ended up in the middle of the league in success rate. That's not so bad relative to the league, but they finished with a success rate of 81.1% - a far cry from their amazing rate last season. Moreover, they did get better in shots allowed per 60 minutes in 4-on-5 situations. Per Behind the Net, the Devils finished just behind St. Louis for the lowest rate in the league at 37. That's an improvement from the 42.7 SA/60 from 2011-12. So they got stingier in terms of shots. Their aggressive approach led to a league-leading 11 shorthanded goals. What changed?
Well, it appears that the shots that got through got in more often. The harsh reality is that while there were plenty of times where the skaters let the goalies down, the goalies just didn't make enough stops. Brodeur's penalty killing save percentage fell from 91.1% to 81.1% and Hedberg's sank from 92.1% to 81%. Sure, a shortened season meant that a deep hole would be difficult to come back from. That's still a giant red flag as to what changed between the two seasons. The goals allowed reviews for both goaltenders provide further evidence. I found that Brodeur let in seventeen soft goals last season. Eight were in penalty killing situations. Hedberg fared better as only three of his fifteen soft goals were power play goals allowed. Still, that's eleven goals that could and should have been stopped between the two of them. That's roughly a third of the 32 power play goals the duo let up last season. That would have made a huge difference in the success of the PK. I come away with this stark difference believing a little more in the cliche that your goaltender needs to be your best penalty killer.
Therefore, we should expect improvement next season, right? Cory Schneider replacing Hedberg alone would be a big help provided he plays like he did in Vancouver. His lowest save percentage in shorthanded situations in a season was in his rookie season and it was at 83.3%. Even that would have been an improvement over both goalies last season. Martin Brodeur may not be getting any younger but his 81% save percentage was by far his worst in recent memory and it came after his very best. Surely, it's not too unreasonable to think he could be better given that he's been at roughly 87.7% since the last lockout per Derek Zona's findings at Copper & Blue. It doesn't have to be great for improvement, Brodeur's save percentage on the penalty kill just has to be better than 81%. It seems to me the general success of the penalty kill should be better for it. That's what it looks like.
However, is that enough? I'm hestitant to say yes. I do think some other questions need to be answered in the upcoming presason.
First, do the Devils want to keep being aggressive on their penalty kill? In 2011-12, the Devils rolled three sets of forwards all were encouraged to push ahead whenever possible. Zach Parise, Adam Henrique, and Ilya Kovalchuk all stood out for turning misplayed pucks and takeaways into exciting rushes up ice for points. Even without Parise, the plan continued with Kovalchuk and Henrique and the team again led the league in shorties. Since Kovalchuk quit on the team with his "retirement," the coaches have to determine if they still have the forwards to keep it up. The Devils still have six forwards who played at least a minute per sixty in 4-on-5 situations in 2013: Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, and Stephen Gionta. Will Dave Barr want to play that style with these six? Who would he switch out who could play that way? Given that Elias, Zajac, Zubrus, Henrique are successful two-way players, now may be the time to dial back the forwards to have them focus more in their own end.
Second, how comfortable are the coaches leaning on Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov. The two have been the top defensive pairing for penalty kills in the 2011-12 and 2013 seasons in terms of ice time. Yet, their flaws are all too familiar to us. They're slow, they can get too physical at times, and if they're not in the right position, then they're pretty much done. In a penalty killing situation, some of those issues aren't as severe. A defenseman is going to be pinned back, the defense should be trying to push the attack out to boards/edges if they can't get possession, a small box formation is simple to follow, and if they do get the puck, they just have to clear it out. The 4-on-5 stats at Behind the Net aren't all that clear. In 2011-12, the opposition got a lower shot rate when Salvador was on the ice but not when Volchenkov was on the ice. Flip flop the players and change the rates a bit, and that's what happened in 2013. Over both seasons, I'm not convinced was not appreciably better than the other. Then again, they often were together so perhaps that's moot. In any case, Salvador's not getting any younger, Volchenkov remains an expensive third-pairing defender, and both aren't getting any better. Are they still good enough to be the first choice pairing to kill a penalty? I suspect the coaches will start them, but I think they should consider others who have been better in 5-on-5 situations.
That leads me to my third question: who pairs up with Andy Greene on the PK pairing behind Salvador and Volchenkov? It's a no-brainer that Andy Greene should be involved as he's the team's top defenseman. With Henrik Tallinder kept on the outside last season, Greene was given most of his minutes. With Tallinder now gone, I think it's safe bet that #6 will be in 4-on-5 and rarely 3-on-5 situations. Last season, Mark Fayne played significant minutes in shorthanded situations. Since he's a very good defensive defenseman, that would be the logical and reasonable choice. That's what I think it would be and I would even consider making Greene-Fayne the primary option with Salvador-Volchenkov following up. However, he wasn't always in the lineup for one reason or another last season If (or sadly when) he's not in the lineup, that should mean Adam Larsson would get that spot. Better him than, say, Peter Harrold or Marek Zidlicky, but is he good enough to handle it? Like Fayne, Larsson was sent to the bench last season too so it's an open question.
These questions can begin to be answered in preseason, where coaches and players will try out strategies and tactics. And there will be many adjustments through the season related to injuries and performance both within and outside of the penalty kill. I do think that better goaltending should improve the Devils' penalty kill in the 2013-14 season. While finishing around league median isn't terrible - it's just average - I do think they could be better. I don't think we're going to see a 90% success rate over 82 games again for quite some time, but a higher success rate is attainable. Especially if they can keep being stingy on shots allowed presuming the very-reasonable theory that Schneider is way better than Hedberg and Brodeur from last season. Yet, maintaining that requires some decisions to be made by the coaches, with assistance from the players themselves.